Nothing came easy for the Rangers last night in Glendale, Arizona. Facing the league’s worst team, they struggled mightily. Despite a flat performance, they finally responded in crunch time to pull out a undeserved 3-2 win over the five win Coyotes at Gila River Arena.
Let’s get this out of the way. No win is bad. Even though they played about as poor a game as possible against an opponent who had nothing to lose and everything to gain, the bottom line is the Rangers rose up when it mattered to get the two points. At the end of the day, that’s two more points than they had entering play.
The one-goal victory snapped the first two-game losing streak in regulation. Consecutive losses to the Predators and Avalanche. Two playoff teams with good records. Encouraging is they continue to beat the opponents they’re supposed to. The more concerning issue is that they haven’t fared well versus teams with good records. That must change soon. The Golden Knights are in town Friday. It’ll have to be a much better effort.
The more positive takeaway is the Rangers found a way to win without Artemi Panarin, who left the contest in the second period. They termed it a lower-body injury. In the postgame, coach Gerard Gallant said Panarin is day-to-day. Whatever context that means who knows. We’ll have a better idea tomorrow if he can play against Vegas. He only logged seven minutes before exiting.
Give credit to Keith Kinkaid. Making his first start of the season to give Alex Georgiev a night off, the likable veteran came in and made 29 saves on 31 shots to pick up the win. He definitely played well by making some key stops that helped his team out when they needed a lift. It isn’t easy for a journeyman to play as well as Kinkaid did. Like friend Robert Kraze Davis would say, “He’s Kingkaid.”
Finally, Kaapo Kakko delivered a big game. His two goals including the game decider that came on the power play with 2:18 to go were clutch. Both goals were scored from the same area in the paint. That’s where the former 2019 second pick has to be to have more success. I called him out earlier in the game for passing up a wide open shot. Maybe I should go after other players to bust them out of slumps. It worked.
As you can see, I delighted in eating crow. Make mine a double. Kakko ×2! His fourth and fifth goals ended an 10-game drought. The two points were also his first since Dec. 1. He needed to score. It definitely gave him a confidence boost. Without Panarin after the Coyotes took an ill advised bench minor with under three minutes left, Gallant used Kakko in his spot. It paid off when he was the recipient of a great feed from noted playmaker Chris Kreider for the winner.
In a true rarity, Kreider was the setup man Wednesday night by assisting on three goals. There goes his Cy Young status. He’s now 17-7. All kidding aside, it’s nice to see him pad his assist total from four to seven. He did some grunt work on the tying power play goal from Mika Zibanejad with 5:46 remaining. Zibanejad’s sixth was enormous. He also picked up a helper on Kakko’s first of the game halfway through. Goals have been hard to come by for Zibanejad. Maybe he can finally get going.
For a while, it really looked like they’d become the sixth Coyotes’ victim. After Kakko put in a rebound of a Zibanejad shot set up by Kreider at 10:40 of the second period, the Rangers were unable to take the lead. Despite finally awakening from a malaise, they couldn’t quite go ahead. Scott Wedgewood made 14 saves with some gems coming following the Kakko tally. He denied Alexis Lafreniere in close to keep it even headed to the third.
With 0.2 seconds left in the second, Jacob Trouba hi-sticked Clayton Keller after a lost defensive face-off. A frustrating way to end the period after it was Trouba who provided a spark when he got into it with Antoine Roussel near the benches. That seemed to ignite the flame. The Rangers played better following that exchange. Trouba seems to be the pulse of this team. Whether it’s a big hit or strong reaction during a scrum, he’s providing needed leadership.
Although he didn’t get a point on the night and was victimized by Keller on an Arizona go-ahead goal at 8:47 of the third, Trouba again played a good game. He was very active during his shifts and registered two shots while attempting seven altogether. He also recorded two hits and two blocks in 22:47 of ice time. His overall game has been much better this season.
On the Keller goal, it was the fourth line that turned over the puck in the neutral zone. That led to former Blueshirt Anton Stralman (yes, he still plays) starting a nice passing play with Nick Schmaltz drawing a sliding Trouba over before finding a cutting Keller backdoor for a backhand tuck past Kinkaid for a 2-1 Coyotes lead with 11:13 remaining.
The way the Yotes responded up to that point in the third, it felt like the backbreaker. This had the feel of one of those ugly losses that you can’t get the bitter taste out of your mouth from. Had this been the previous year, they lose this game. Especially without Panarin.
Instead, they dug deep to pull it out. Of course, a losing team like Arizona helped out by taking two undisciplined penalties. With less than seven minutes left, Phil Kessel interfered with Kevin Rooney to go to the box. It took the Rangers’ reformed top unit a minute to tie the score.
With Kakko on in place of Panarin along with Fox, Zibanejad, Kreider and Ryan Strome, they got it set up. Going back to an old formula that once was successful, Kreider got the puck up to Fox, who then moved it over for a simple Zibanejad wrist shot from the left circle that went right through Wedgewood for the all important game-tying goal at 14:14. Kreider was in front. However, a better goalie stops it. Zibanejad will take it.
With the game tied, Kinkaid made a couple of key stops before the Coyotes saw their collective shadow (Groundhog Day reference) like Bill Murray’s memorable Phil character keeps repeating the same annoying day over and over. Arizona got caught with six skaters out for an easy too many men on the ice minor.
Unlike the mugging they got away with previously on Dryden Hunt before Keller came down and scored, the refs and linesmen had to make the obvious call. Let’s just say I wasn’t a big fan of the officials. They missed a couple of obvious infractions on the Yotes.
On another man-advantage with 2:59 left, this time they worked the puck around perfectly for Kakko’s game-winner. On another good passing play, the puck came to Strome, who moved it to Kreider down low. He came out in front and drew a defender down before sliding the puck across for a Kakko tap in at 17:42. A perfectly executed power play goal that had Kakko and pleased teammates all smiles coming back to the bench.
Finally ahead for the first time due to Loui Eriksson opening the scoring late in the first with a shorthanded goal, they no longer were chasing the game. Instead, they were able to protect the one-goal lead to close out an ugly victory. Coyote Ugly.
The only thing I didn’t get was why Patrik Nemeth was out for the final shift with Trouba. They really don’t trust K’Andre Miller at this point? Oy. I’d much prefer Miller used in that spot with Trouba, who even took a defensive shift at the end of the second with Ryan Lindgren. I don’t want to see Nemeth anywhere near such a close game.
I couldn’t understand why he and Libor Hajek took a regular shift with over seven minutes remaining trailing by one. It was strange. Hajek actually saved a goal earlier in the game with his stick. He played over 14 minutes. He doesn’t scare me as much as Nemeth, who nearly received 18 minutes. I guess they had to play them due to it being their third game in four nights. I don’t see the point in using the third pair minus Nils Lundkvist down a goal.
I’m relieved that they won. The last thing they needed was to enter Friday’s tough match-up at MSG with a three-game losing streak. The Golden Knights are hot right now. Max Pacioretty is playing lights out while Chandler Stephenson is piling up points. Historically, the Rangers have done okay against Vegas. The last meeting was a 5-0 shutout on Dec. 8, 2019. You know facing the former team he coached to a Stanley Cup Final appearance in the inaugural year will carry extra meaning for Gallant. I’m sure he wants to stick it to them.
In any event, before I close the book on the win last night, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fireworks that happened at the buzzer. Maybe it was just frustration on their part. But the Coyotes acted like some losers by starting a fight. Trouba and Roussel were separated while Kessel of all people got the better of Lindgren. Eventually, the teams separated. The next time the Rangers are supposed to see Arizona is on January 22 at The Garden. Keep it circled.
One other note. Gallant healthy scratched Filip Chytil. He hasn’t been getting it done. Maybe this was the coach just sending a message. Instead of Chytil, Greg McKegg took his place in the lineup. The Keg Man was okay. He gives an honest effort. However, after Panarin went down, I half wondered if Turk might regret sitting Chytil. But they came back and won. I’m curious to see if he’ll be back in Friday. How will he respond? That’ll be interesting.